If Leeds United, as their new manager Peter Reid puts it, are a liner and not a canoe (he was trying to state how big a club they are), then he appears determined not to be cast as Captain Edward Smith. Football's equivalent of the Titanic may be sailing not so merrily towards a debt mountain of iceberg proportions, but a course is being plotted to avoid relegation.
An astonishing display of real purpose and power overwhelmed a Charlton side lacking both. The startling margin was in no way flattering – it was that convincing. The unlikely hero was Mark Viduka, so often castigated, but showing the threat of two years ago. He was run close – with Sven Goran Eriksson watching – by Alan Smith. On this form, Smith is an international again. Little wonder that after Leeds' fourth goal, bewildered visiting fans struck up a chorus of "What the hell is going on?" – or words to that effect. It would have been no surprise if the home end had joined in. Many headed for the exit as early as the 55th minute.
Before the match, the contrast between the two clubs was arresting. Afterwards it was too. Charlton financially sound; Leeds deep in debt. Instead of "living the dream", as the now departed Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale described his failings, Charlton have built a reality. A new stadium, fully paid for, and a squad patiently assembled and carefully nurtured. But the Valley is a happy hunting ground for Leeds: it was their third win in a row here. With four home games to go, Reid, the former Sunderland manager, will feel he can avoid the quiz-question status of being at the helm of two Premiership clubs relegated in the same season.
Instead he had the statisticians looking for the last time such a defeat was inflicted on Charlton, and with such pan-ache. He was, understandably, buoyant. "Today the players have set themselves really good standards which they have to keep up," he said, looking a little shell-shocked. "Some of the goals were terrific, terrific goals, but the catalyst was the work ethic."
Indeed it was. Reid's first match ended in defeat at Liverpool. Here he dropped Paul Okon, Raul Bravo and Teddy Lucic, all signed by Terry Venables, among five changes. Reid put his faith, as is his wont, in the old guard. Dom-inic Matteo played in midfield, creating a platform for Viduka, Smith and Harry Kewell. They did not let Reid down.
Charlton were pinned back from the start by a series of corners, then the three strikers combined for the opening goal. Kewell began and ended the move, transferring the ball via Viduka to Smith, whose clever, low cross was sidefooted in. Next, Scott Parker had to scuff the ball off the line, and moments later Richard Rufus panicked, pulling down Smith for a penalty. Such was Leeds' hunger that Viduka and Ian Harte fought over the ball before the Irishman scored.
Energised, Leeds kept coming forward, Viduka scoring with a remarkable, confident drive from an acute angle after collecting Smith's knock-down. On half-time, Charlton jangled Leeds' nerves as Jason Euell converted another pen-alty after Parker collided with Lucas Radebe's boot.
At the break, Alan Curbish-ley made two changes, the only surprise being that he did not make three. Immediately Parker forced a reaction save by Robinson as he picked up Euell's flick-on, but Leeds soon added a fourth. Smith's tricky turn and purposeful run set up Viduka who, with memorable composure, flicked the ball with the outside of his boot to beat Kiely. Remarkable.
Smith created the hat-trick goal for his attacking partner as he won a second penalty after Luke Young careered into him. This time Harte stayed back and Viduka chipped the ball calmly over Kiely's dive. Kewell, not to be outdone, scored a sixth as he intercepted substitute Tahar El-Khalej's slack pass and ran unmolested to shoot calmly from inside the area. There was even time for Viduka to hit the bar. Seventh heaven? After a year of nightmares, Leeds fans must have felt they were living a dream again.
For Curbishley, clearly hurt, it was a nightmare. "It is quite astonishing," he kept repeating. "I do not want to take away anything from Leeds because they made us look that bad, but it was an astonishing performance by us."
It was no-nonsense stuff by Leeds – and not the only example of Reid's approach on show this week. He has met Ridsdale's successor, Professor John McKenzie, twice and those talks may have featured in Max Clifford's departure as an adviser on the club's public image. Reid clearly feels he can handle that task himself.
One note of caution, however. Before kick-off Charlton paraded the new signing Hermann Hreidarsson, picked up for a modest £800,000 from Ipswich. If Reid keeps Leeds up he will still have to contend with a clear-out of players as the board, apparently, need to raise another £20m. Eirik Bakke seems certain to go, but the real marketable assets – this is a business, of course – are Smith, Kewell and Viduka. Without them here, where would Leeds have been?
Charlton Athletic 1 Leeds United 6
Euell pen 45; Kewell 12, 76, Harte pen 34, Viduka 42, 53, pen 56
Half-time: 1-3 Attendance: 26,274